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“Someone can buy a quadcopter with a GoPro [camera] attached, and fly it to shoot video. As long as that video is solely for their personal use … it’s considered recreational,” the agency said in a statement. “If the same person flies the same quadcopter and then tries to sell the video, or accepts payments from someone else to shoot the video, that would be a prohibited commercial operation.”

The agency also referred to 1981 federal standards stating that models must avoid flying above highly populated areas, fly no higher than 400 feet, give way to full-size aircraft and take other precautionary steps.

Model airplanes also are almost always flown within visual line of sight of the operator, something that certainly will not hold true for commercial drones. Military drones already are operated from many miles away.

Unmanned aerial systems also are subject to the long-accepted notion that performing an activity for profit opens it up to new laws and regulations. Cooking a meal for friends or styling their hair, for example, requires no government inspections or certifications. Opening up a restaurant or a beauty shop, on the other hand, very much does.

“Collateral damage”

In the years to come, problems are likely to arise when lawmakers, concerned about drones’ ability to infringe on Fourth Amendment and personal privacy rights, draft sweeping legislation that may catch model aircraft in the crossfire.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), a nonprofit that supports and promotes model aviation as recreation and the umbrella group of the Chesapeake club, is encouraging its members “to remain vigilant” and help preserve model aircraft from new restrictions.

Each time new legislation is introduced, modelers’ concern grows. At the federal level, more than a half-dozen drone privacy and data-collection measures have been introduced. More than 30 states have introduced their own bills, and local governments, such as the one in Charlottesville, Va., are also tackling the issue.

“I think the model aircraft community is right to be concerned about the potential for collateral damage to their hobby,” said John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, who’s written about the term “drone” and differences with model planes.

“Very few legislators at the state or federal level would intentionally impede model aviation,” he said. “The concern is that there could be unintended consequences to modeling from ‘drone’ privacy bills that might place operational restrictions on [unmanned aircraft] operations, which could end up including some model aircraft if the language is worded overly broadly.”

Fighting for exemptions

Some drone bills have included explicit exemptions for model aircraft, while others haven’t. A recent drone privacy measure put forth by Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward Markey, for example, states that “nothing in this act may be construed to apply to model aircraft” as defined by the FAA.

Other proposals lack such vital language.

Legislation in Oregon, placing limits on where drones can fly and what kinds of data they can collect, defines one as an “unmanned flying machine that is capable of capturing images of objects or people on the ground or in the air,” among other criteria.

A model airplane easily could satisfy the definition if it’s outfitted with a camera — a relatively common practice within the hobby community.

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